As we enjoy the traditional holiday season of food-centered celebrations, let’s not only consume, but also reflect on, discuss and consider, what we can do to shape our food culture and food future.
We’re presented with two starkly different visions of that future: the industrialized, conglomeratized, globalized, monopolized, plasticized and heavily subsidized vision of Agri-business, and the localized, democratized vision of Agri-culture, in which sustainable farmers and food artisans practicing the art and science of cooperating with Mother Nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm her. This is a fight for the control of our dinner, our food culture, and it’s one of the biggest and most important populist struggles in our society today.
“Agriculture is no longer a way of life,” former Ag Secretary Earl Butz infamously barked at farmers 40 years ago. “It’s a business,” he lectured, callously adding that they should “get big or get out.”
Butz, an agribusiness apostle of full corporatization of our food economy, was wrong, as today’s fast-spreading Good Food movement is showing. It turns out that farming is a good business — literally producing an abundance of goodness — specifically because agriculturists see it as a way of life.
This spirit was recently summed up in one word by Lee Jones, a sustainable farmer in Ohio who was asked what’d he’d be if he weren’t a farmer. He replied, “Disappointed.” To farmers like these, food embodies our full “culture” — a word that is, after all, sculpted right into “agriculture” and is essential to its organic meaning.
Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA, works with small farmers across the country to bring nearly lost breeds of sustainably raised cows, pigs and turkeys to market. He measures sustainability not just by environmental standards, but also by whether the animals are happy! Asked what makes a turkey happy, Martins said simply: “Room. That’s the biggest thing. It can walk around.”
Space to walk is reasonable, right? Visit one of the massive factory feeding operations of agribusiness, where the vast majority of American turkeys are raised, and you’ll find no such concession to the most basic of creature comforts. Thousands of the large birds are crammed side-by-side in cages, spending nasty, brutish and short lives with barely enough room to move, much less walk. To true agriculturalists like Martins, these meat factories amount to animal concentration camps. “No living creature should be forced to spend its entire life in a box,” he says.
That’s the icky stuff, but there’s good stuff, too. For starters, if you’re looking for Good Food items — from organic tomatoes to pastured turkey — localharvest.org can help you find them somewhere near your home. Enter your zip code, and this website will search for the small-scale farmers, artisans, farmers markets and other resources in your area.
And guess who’s planting seeds for urban revival! For years, media outlets have covered a bad-news stories about Detroit: drugs, economic collapse, population flight, intractable poverty, dilapidation, etc. So how about a good-news story from the Motor City?
A quiet, vibrant, populist revival has taken root and is spreading across this hardscrabble urban landscape — propelled by (of all things) agriculture. Well, agriculture is the means, but it has really been propelled by a sense of justice, sheer necessity, and the inspiring spunk of ordinary, working-class Detroiters who have created and are expanding one of the finest models of a self-sustaining urban food culture economy in America.
Their grassroots network includes such groups as Grown in Detroit (a widely popular cooperative market and professional training center that sells foods produced by gardens and in-city farms located within a mile of downtown); Feedom Freedom, a community garden that supplies local restaurants and supports a hands-on education program called “Youth Growing Detroit” that enlists hundreds of young people; People’s Kitchen Detroit, operating a mobile food bus and gardens to supply top-quality, low-cost food to low-income people, while also organizing around local food issues; and the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, a consortium of food-focused groups writing a plan for an urban food security system that can deliver sustainable, healthy, affordable food for all, even as it provides good jobs and new economic opportunities.
What you and I choose to eat, where we choose to get it, what policies and politicians we choose to support or oppose, what groups we choose to help and whether we even choose to think about the food we eat — all are choices directly affecting the nature of food production and of food itself. In ways big and small, you and I are central to the struggle. And if each of us does just a bit more for the agri-cultural side, we’ll make the difference in America’s food culture.